April 5, 2013
After writing a post not long ago on a book about a small provincial river in France – it seems more than fitting to follow up with a book about a small provincial river in England. Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s just-released book Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River unearths (quite literally) the meandering path and lost history of the Wey, a more or less obscure river about halfway between London and Oxford. The Wey is but seven winding miles in length and one can drive from its source to the point where it disappears forever in a half hour. But with dual epigraphs from Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Rangeley-Wilson signals that Silt Road is ambitious and intends to transgress typical book categories.
The premise of Silt Road is simple: the author, a well-respected authority on trout fishing around the world, becomes intrigued and then obsessed by a local stream that seemingly harbors the occasional trout. Efforts to track it from start to finish fail, as the river keeps disappearing underground, under highways, into drainage culverts, beneath buildings. The hide-and-seek game of where is the river soon leads to why and when. Why does the river disappear so often and when did all that happen? As it turns out, Rangeley-Wilson’s obsessiveness is matched ounce for ounce by his dogged research skills, and slowly Rangeley-Wilson peels away at the strata of history literally beneath his feet and the rather astonishing history of the Wye is revealed. We learn about the erotic exploits of the well-named Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) and his randy fellows whose gatherings in the wood by the Wye were both satanic and priapic. We learn that much of the local machinery destroyed by the Luddite riots of the 1830s was thrown in the Wye. We learn that the local beech forests (now nearly wiped out) supplied the wood for the classic Windsor chair and that chair makers in the area were producing 4,500 chairs a day late in the nineteenth century. We learn that, until specimens were exported from the Wye, the entire southern hemisphere of this planet had no trout.
It takes a bit of hubris and a dash of humor to give a book about a polluted little river in England a title that will surely call to mind the great Silk Road that once spanned Asia, but I give Rangeley-Wilson credit for keeping me thoroughly engaged. His message is that, properly told, local history can become universal. As a reader, I felt as if I had stowed away in Rangeley-Wilson’s rucksack as he tromped around the fringes of English villages and conducted his research, employing everything from satellite maps to aging reels of microfiche to interviews in local pubs over a few pints. Silt Road pays polite homage to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in the way Rangeley-Wilson blends the genres of history, exploration, autobiography, and such, and also in the use of his own snapshots and reproductions of historic images and documents as illustrative material. But Rangeley-Wilson can also veer off into the industrial wastelands and working-class districts more frequently found in the books of Iain Sinclair.
I also give him credit for insisting on depth rather than breadth and sticking with his subject for the entire book. (It helps that he writes damned well.) This is a book that is already being compared to works by Roger Deakin and Robert MacFarlane, two authors who can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a chapter. As much as I appreciate Deakin’s classic Waterlog, I find it a bit disconcerting that every chapter begins by setting off for new territory. I often feel that Deakin was at his best when he just stayed home and wrote about his own backyard. In Silt Road, Charles Rangeley-Wilson sticks to his own neighborhood and it pays off.
August 13, 2012
Robert Macfarlane’s self-imposed task sounded simple: “Would it be possible to make a series of journeys in search of some of the wild places that remained in Britain and Ireland?” The end result became The Wild Places (2007), an accounting of fifteen such journeys, several made with writer Roger Deakin, who died in 2006. But as the journeys unfold, so do the questions that Macfarlane comes to ask himself.
Like the best of those who choose to write largely about the natural world, Macfarlane expands the genre beyond pure science, embracing history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy. The Wild Places is a blend of personal quest, reportage from the front lines, and deep reflection on the elusive definition and meaning of “nature” and “wild.” For Macfarlane, there is no doubt that nature can provide many redemptive moments and unequaled insights to the receptive spirit. At the very least, he thinks, people routinely draw happiness from their daily encounters with landscape. At a much deeper level, Macfarlane suspects that we need nature to give us perspective, to remind us of our role – exceedingly minor and transitory – in the larger story of the universe.
We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity. We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us – the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it. On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.
Traveling through the Lake District, Macfarlane reads Coleridge, who, in 1802-3, escaped depression by walking there relentlessly, experiencing the wildness of that countryside. “Wildness, in Coleridge’s account, is an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life.”
But Macfarlane is under no illusion about the real nature of Nature. Most of the places to which he journeys present him with forbidding conditions and relentless danger and it doesn’t take much to realize that nature is utterly disinterested in human existence.
The sea, the stone, the night and the weather all pursued their processes and kept their habits, as they had done for millennia, and would do for millennia to follow. The fall of moonlight on to water, the lateral motion of blown snow through air, these were of the place’s making only. This was a terrain that had been thrown up by fire and survived ice. There was nothing, save the wall of rocks I had made and the summit cairn, to suggest history. Nothing human….
There could have been nowhere that conformed more purely to the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys. I had been drawn here by a spatial logic, a desire to reach this coincident point of high altitude and high latitude. But now I could not wait to leave it…
All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
The question that keeps popping up during Macfarlane’s short journeys is this: What do we mean by wild? Do we mean remote and unforgiving or can the wild exist near at hand?
Lying there on the drifted sand, under the white stars, I thought about how the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys – inhuman, northern, remote – was starting to crumble from contact with the ground itself. No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland….The human and the wild cannot be partitioned.
Visiting the Burren, a desolate, rocky place in the north of County Clare, Ireland, Macfarlane and Deakin spent a day walking slowly over the area’s limestone, where they discover a small gryke, a minute crack in the limestone. As they lay on their stomachs and peer into it, they spy hundreds of different types of plants opportunistically growing in the sheltered, well-watered spot. So, maybe wildness comes in miniature sizes as well as on a national park scale. But the Burren also has a long human history and Macfarlane realizes that “five millennia of human activity in the Burren also means that buried in it are 5,000 years’ worth of the dead.” As W.G. Sebald wrote, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,”
I had passed through lands that were saturated with invisible people, with lives lived and lost, deaths happy and unhappy, and the spectral business of these wild places had become less and less ignorable. My idea of wildness as something inhuman, outside history, had come to seem nonsensical, even irresponsible.
Eventually, he realizes that Roger Deakins had it right.
“There is wildness everywhere,” Roger had written once, “if we only stop in our tracks and look around us.” To him, the present-day and the close-at-hand were as astonishing as the long-gone and the far-afield. He was an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby.
…I had started to refocus. I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadsides, hedges, field boundaries or spinnies….And it was there in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge.
By the end of The Wild Places, I was not surprised at the equanimity with which Macfarlane anticipates the eventual end of the world as we know it, as he contemplates the way in which the natural world quickly reclaims the places we have built, spoiled and abandoned – including poisoned places like Chernobyl.
I had spoken once to a climate-change scientist about the subject of abandonment. The study of her science had changed her perception of time, she said, and of the relevance of human beings within history. Though we are now among the dominant species, she said, our age will pass and our material legacy – unthinkable though it is now to imagine it vanished – will be absorbed by the land, becoming all but imperceptible.
Although Macfarlane never mentions Sebald (except to note The Rings of Saturn in his reading list), The Wild Places occasionally crosses over into Sebald territory, both literally and philosophically. Macfarlane visits Orford Ness (which plays a role in The Rings of Saturn) at which point he muses on Sir Thomas Browne’s concept of the quincunx, a curious natural pattern that Sebald also discusses. But in the end, Macfarlane and Sebald go their separate ways. The final page of The Rings of Saturn is marked by death, mourning, and the onset of blackness, while Macfarlane ends his book by climbing up into a tree and surveying the landscape that surrounds him.
Wildness was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of its was menaced, and some of it was dying. But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.
May 10, 2010
Thanks to Sarah Elsegood for letting me know that the Roger Deakin Archive has been donated to the University of East Anglia and is fully processed. A finding aid to all “23 linear metres” can be downloaded.
Roger Deakin’s Archive has been given to University of East Anglia Library in Norwich, by his son Rufus Deakin. Robert Macfarlane was nominated by Roger Deakin as his Literary Executor. The Deakin Archive has been fully listed and includes some material relating to Sebald. It also contains over 130 notebooks which were the source material for ‘Waterlog’ and his posthumously published book ‘Wildwood’ as well as ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ which was edited by Terence Blacker and Alison Hastie.
Of particular interest to me was the description of this folder: RD/LIT/6/9 “W.G. Sebald, 2001-2003. Contains RD’s thoughts on the author W.G. Sebald, book reviews and obituaries.” Deakin’s book Waterlogged: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain provided the title for the 2007 exhibition Waterlog, which I have written about extensively.)
Photograph of Roger Deakin’s shed at his Walnut Tree Farm by Justin Partyka from Shedworking
August 27, 2007
Tim Adams, writing for the Guardian Unlimited, recently did a profile of Robert Macfarlane, whose new book, The Wild Places, is about to be released in England September 3 by Granta Books. The Wild Places sounds very much like a book in the vein of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and indeed, as Hill reports, Macfarlane’s next book will be about Sebald.
For his next book Macfarlane is retracing the walking tours of the late WG Sebald, the melancholic German genius, who washed up not far from here in East Anglia. He frets a little – an unusual anxiety for a writer – that he is not depressed enough to catch Sebald’s mood. ‘I’m too young and cheery, that’s the trouble,’ he says, laughing.
There is quite a bit of new nature writing in Great Britain that is somewhat akin to Sebald’s writing and which doesn’t get much play in the U.S. In addition to Macfarlane, other names that I run across with increasing frequency include: Roger Deakin (who died last year), Mark Crocker, and Richard Mabey, none of whom I have read yet. (I think Deakin’s book Waterlogged: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain provided the title for the exhibition Waterlog, which I wrote about earlier.)
‘Something very interesting is happening in East Anglia at the moment,’ Macfarlane suggests. ‘This resurgence in nature writing seems to be centred here somehow. And this summer is the sort of mast year for it.’ Mabey, a friend, has suggested to him the reason for this. ‘East Anglia was the most devastated region by agribusiness and it follows that the reaction should begin here.’